The Attraction of Color for Active Attention-Problem Children
The theoretical basis of the present study is derived from the optimal stimulation theory (e.g., Hebb, 1955). This theory assumes that there exists for all organisms a biological need for an optimal level of stimulation. When an optimal level is not present, shifts in attention and activity can serve as instrumental responses (e.g., sensation-seeking activity) functioning to optimize stimulation. We have applied the theory to hyperactive children by proposing that hyperactive children are more readily under-stimulated than normal children, and therefore they exhibit more sensation-seeking activity and are more easily attracted to stimulation (for theory and review of empirical support see Zentall, 1975; Zentall & Zentall, 1983). If color functions as a strong appetitive stimulus for hyperactive children as we have proposed, it could both improve and disrupt performance depending on its physical placement in a task. Both of these effects had been independently demonstrated in prior work. That is, nonrelevant color added to repetitive tasks has helped hyperactive children maintain attention (Swanson, Barlow, & Kinsbourne, 1979) and differentially improved their performance (Zentall, 1985, 1986; Zentall, Falkenberg, & Smith, 1985). However, nonrelevant color has also produced differential performance disruption with other types of tasks (Rosenthal & Allen, 1980; Zentall, Zentall, & Barack, 1978; Zentall, Zentall, & Booth, 1978).
That color can produce both positive and negative effects has been attributed to differences in the tasks used. This was the only interpretation possible from these diverse results because color manipulations within any one task had not been previously documented. In an earlier study (Zentall et al., 1985), we set out to demonstrate improved performance using one task with color placed on relevant detail over that produced by color added to nonrelevant detail. We found that color produced better overall performance for attention disordered adolescents. We failed to demonstrate differences in performance attributable to the placement of color, due perhaps to the fact that the prior study examined the performance of adolescents whose task responses were overlearned. Thus, in the present study we selected younger active attention-problem children.
The practical significance of this work lies in the potential of guiding the attention of children who constitute approximately 40% to 80% of learning disabled and behavior disordered children and 10% of regular classroom children (Zentall & Barack, 1979). Presently, over half of the regular classroom hyperactive children will fail at least one grade level by age 12, often in spite of intelligence equivalent to that of their classmates (Minde et al., 1971).
Seventeen active attention-problem boys were selected from regular elementary classes on the basis of high scores on the Abbreviated Teacher Rating Scale (ATRS, Conners, 1973). The ATRS has been demonstrated to have good intrarater reliability, concurrent validity (Zentall & Barack, 1979), and predictive validity with both bottom movements and verbalizations (Zentall, Gohs, & Culatta, 1983). Pelham and Bender (1982, p. 370) have reported a 92% overlap between the ATRS and the SNAP, an index of attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADD-H). Active attention-problem children were matched to 17 control subjects on the basis of age, handwriting scores, and low ATRS scores. (See Table 1.)
Using criteria from the Test of Written Language (TOWL, Hammill & Larsen, 1978), handwriting ratings were applied to written samples of an in-class 20-min copying task (see Zentall et al., 1985). Each member of the matched pair did not differ from his partner by more than [+ or -] 2 on the TOWL rating. Raters met TOWL criterion scoring and demonstrated reliable interrater coding on a rerating of 15% of the experimental handwriting samples (r = . …